Stephen McCauley’s characters get a chance at new life in his funny, incisive new novel. The story’s three main players are unsettled and out-of-joint—David Hedges, a gay man, whose San Francisco apartment is being sold out from under him; Julie Fiske, a divorced woman trying to hold on to her shambling old Victorian in Massachusetts; and Mandy Fiske, Julie’s daughter, a junior in high school who’s slogging her way through college applications—and It turns out, they all need one another.
The charm of this story lies in the concept of family. In McCauley’s world, family isn’t necessarily the one we’re born into or create through marriage. If those traditional families no longer answer our needs, the author suggests an alternative: a family of choice, one in which friendship provides the life-sustaining bonds we turn to when we’re uprooted spiritually or geographically.
McCauley presents a slice of 21st-century life, and his secondary characters—spouses and exes, neighbors, clients, schoolmates—provide satirical grist for the mill. David works as a private college placement counselor, hired by “tiger” parents who applaud their children’s lies on applications as proof of their creative genius. There’s the consultant whom Julie hires to advise her on running her Airbnb: offer your guests fresh fruit for breakfast, she advises Jule, but never cut it up—that way the guests won’t eat it, and you’ll save money. Another minor character, a friend, observes that her rich stockbroker husband has no friends, just “opportunities wearing socks.”
Much of the novel’s writing is like that, clever and funny. But some of it has real bite: at a cocktail party, David notices the married guests, men grouped on one side of the room, women on the other. “The women’s efforts at keeping themselves fit and groomed were clearly aimed at each other since they’d become as invisible to the men as the men were to them.” Ouch.
What is essentially a cozy, domestic comedy, however, takes a darker turn when it comes to Mandy, Julie’s 17-year-old daughter, whose narrative line provides the book’s only bit of suspense. Having come East to help Mandy with her college applications, it is David, not her mother, who senses something amiss.
Mandy has caught the eye of handsome 28-year-old Craig Crespo, who sees something special in her, and although flattered and attracted to Craig, she is also unnerved by his attentions. “Technically, Mandy thinks, Craig “was a horrible person, but actually, he wasn’t a bad guy.” So for once, Mandy decides to be the “fearless, irresponsible” star of her own life.
Like her elders, Mandy is creating her own ex-life, which someday she’ll look back on.
We all have them: ex-lives. Some we think of fondly as we look back in the rear view mirror; others we can’t peel away from fast enough or put enough distance behind us. But those are the ones we need to revisit and rectify—and it’s what both David and Julie understand that they need to do. The two have history together, an ex-life as a married couple, and they need to reverse gears to understand what happened in that brief time as husband and wife. MY EX-LIFE is a delightful novel written by a wise and knowing author,
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.